The Agatha Christie Theatre Company
Richmond Theatre and touring
While Alec Guinness was busy giving his monumentally awful Hamlet and Noël Coward was cruelly mocking the Festival of Britain in song, Agatha Christie celebrated 1951 by ditching Hercule Poirot from the West End stage version of her mystery novel, The Hollow.
Published in 1946, it was his 22nd appearance in print. But growing weary of the Belgian sleuth, Christie discreetly replaced him with the tough talking Inspector Colquhoun of the Yardalbeit that Poirot was destined to have the last laugh when he made a triumphant return to the murder scene in the ITV adaptation, David Suchet fronting the action
Happily this faithful touring revival, inaugurating Bill Kenwrights Agatha Christie Theatre Company, gains hugely from Poirots absence with a dazzling star turn for Kate OMara.
She plays Lady Angkatell, an aristocratic weekend hostess with a house full of guests, whose plans for Saturday lunch are seriously mucked up by a fatal shooting in the garden room of The Hollow, her domestic arrangements made more problematic when the CID arrive and start asking awkward questions.
A glamorous figure in gardening togs or gorgeously gowned in the height of 1950s fashion, OMara delivers her non sequiturs and deliciously dotty dialogue with all the aplomb of the late A.E.Matthews, getting a laugh on every other line. And at one moment she is seen to be reading a green Penguin Crime edition of a Christie novel to get acquainted with murdera neat touch.
As a thriller the play is structurally unusual. Almost nothing untoward happens until well into Act II, when unexpectedly, the hated Dr Cristow, a bumptious, chain-smoking Harley Street consultant (suavely played by Ben Nealon) is felled by a single bullet from a Smith & Wesson, fired at close range but just out of view of the audience.
Almost everyone had a reason for slaying him, especially the three women in his life: his put-upon wife (Louise Faulkner), discovered with a revolver in her hand as she crouches sobbing over his body; his rejected former mistressa famous film star (Fiona Dolman) who arrives in the night unannounced; and his latest lover, a sculptress (Tracey Childs) who has suddenly become seriously jealous of her actress rival.
The weekend host Sir Henry Angkatell, portrayed with diffident charm by Tony Britton, is a keen collector of small arms, with his own shooting range in the grounds, and who naturally comes under suspicion. As does his self-effacing butler (John Harwood), spotted nervously handling a pistol at the time of the murder by a junior maid, who rushes off to spill the beans to Colquhoun (Gary Mavers).
But theres also a charming side plot reflecting Christies literary alter ego as the romantic novelist Mary Westmacott: a tale of love for two lonely people (Chloe Newsome and Simon Linnell) who at last learn to kiss and intertwine, as they toddle off to enjoy connubial bliss at the familys stately home.
Joe Harmston is no stranger to the Christie canon, having staged three of her thrillers for the Agatha Christie Festival at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff, in 2001. Here he directs a strong and stylish ensemble of seasoned players who perfectly capture the atmosphere of Fifties boulevard theatre, with its fluting accents, flourished gold cigarette-cases and drinks before dinner, as well as creating an engrossing atmosphere of tension from the word go.
It all ends with confessions, revelations and departures as the murder mystery is finally unravelled. But a greater mystery remains, which is why the panelled walls of Simon Scullions handsome design lean so perilously out of the vertical, as if in imminent danger of being blown over by a gust of wind from the west.
Robert Williams reviewed this production at the Cambridge Arts Theatre
Reviewer: John Thaxter